Parmesan or Parmigiano-Reggiano Cheese
What real parmesan cheese should taste like, and 4 ways to appreciate it!
Many of us grew up having parmesan cheese which interestingly came in a plastic container. I remember as a young kid back home when my mom will make pasta and put that magical plastic bottle at the center of the table. My mom will serve each of us a pasta bowl, and the second it was placed in front of you, it was time to fight to be the first to grab that plastic container and sprinkle that powdery white substance all over your plate. Complaints started with the typical "MOM!!! my brothers are putting too much and not leaving enough for the rest of us". We felt so "Italian" putting tons of the powdered parmesan cheese on our pasta. As a kid, that cheese tasted good and I never thought of reading the ingredients of my favorite pasta topping.....until now: Part-skim milk, cheese culture, salt, enzymes...ok... nothing wrong here...but wait.... celluloid power, potassium sorbate, and may contain modified milk ingredients....what am I eating? Why someone messed up with that beautiful powdery stuff that you will dump in your spaghetti with marinara sauce? I was really disappointed to learn that my parmesan cheese, included strange stuff on it. But I guess you learned to "enjoy" the parmesan cheese inside the plastic bottle.
Then, all of a sudden I had an epiphany! A few years ago I visited Parma, Italy, for the first time, and discovered true parmesan cheese: Parmigiano-Reggiano. This is what parmesan cheese should taste like, and it is the soul-mate of pasta. I learned now to look at the ingredients, and make sure that my cheese has the seal of the "Parmigiano-Reggiano Consortium". Trust me, it is worth it.
How is Parmigiano-Reggiano Cheese Made?
It all starts with happy cows in Italy
Parmigiano Reggiano cheese is produced in the provinces of Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena, and Bologna in the northern part of Italy. Local dairy farms supply the milk necessary to make this cheese. Every day, dozens of trucks carry the fresh milk from that same morning or from the previous evening from dairies and farms to the cheese producers.
Cheese Artisans (or artists)
When the trucks arrive with the fresh milk, it is poured inside into huge copper vats which have the shape of an inverted bell. The milk starts to coagulate after adding natural cultures, and then the magic of the cheese artists starts. Using a tool called the "spino" the cheese producers break the curds into tiny granules that drop to the bottom of the copper vat. After this, the cheese artists take linen cloths and pull the cheese that settled into the bottom of the vat.
Shape, Marks, and Time
After the cheese is pulled out from the copper vat, it is placed in a mold to give it its distinctive shape. You might have noticed in the outside part of a wheel of parmesan cheese some distinctive markings. The marks are made by pressing a plastic plate around the cheese, and the purpose is not esthetics, but actually, it is the cheese identification to trace all parts and steps of the cheese-making process. Later on, the cheese is submerged in salted water and then it goes to the process of maturation.
Now, it is time to wait. The cheese rests in a warehouse where it will age (mature) for at least 12 months, with many maturing 2, 3, or more years.
4 Ways to Appreciate Parimigiano-Reggiano
1. Try it by itself
Many of us think of parmesan cheese as a seasoning or dressing for pasta, but I strongly recommend you try it by itself. Buy a wedge of cheese and shave it or break it into crumbles. Pair it with a glass of good wine and try it with some bread, prosciutto, or a little drizzle of crema di balsamico.
Don't think that quality Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese is super expensive. You can purchase a 1lb of a 24-month aged cheese for about $20 - $25 USD. Believe me, it is worth it.
2. Cook with it
In May 2012, two earthquakes hit the Emilia-Romagna region, which resulted in over 360,000 damaged wheels of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. To rescue the cheese, Chef Massimo Bottura came with an idea. He created a new version of cacio e pepe (a simple three-ingredient recipe). As you know cacio e pepe is made with spaghetti, cheese, and pepper. But to use the damaged cheese, he adapted this version and created rissoto, cacio e pepe. Check out our videos for a link to this recipe (sorry it is in Italian. https://www.thehyggefoodie.com/videos)
3. Visit a cheese producer
I know that at the time I am writing this story there are a lot of restrictions to travel due to the pandemic, but start planning into the future. You can fly to many airports in Italy (Rome, Venice, Milan, Bologna, etc) and then catch a train to Parma. I will soon write a story of this amazing city that is a little "off the beaten path" and totally worth it. There are many places you can visit, but I recommend La Traversetolese, where all the pictures on this story were taken by me. where you can book a tour of the facility and then purchase some cheese. The producer is located a short 20-minute drive from Parma, Italy in Strade Provinciale 16 (SP16). La Traversetolese is a cooperative of 73 farmers that supply the milk used to produce their cheese. Thanks to the owners of La Traversetolese for allowing me to tour your facility, sign a cheese, and eat a lot of it!
Strada Pedemontana Est, 13, 43029
Mamiano PR, Italy
Tel. +39 0521 848347
4. Learn more
The Parmegiano-Reggiano Consortium not only oversees the cheese production and authenticates true Parmigiano-Reggiano. They also look to educate us, the consumers, about this cheese. Check out the website of the Consortium as well as their offices around the world to learn more about Parmigiano-Reggiano.
I want to thank my friends from the Parma UNESCO City of Gastronomy: Carlota Beghi, Costanza Ferrarini, and Gabriele Righi for welcoming me to your beautiful community.
Please share your thoughts, ideas, and recipes about Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, or any other of our stories by emailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org